Friday, January 21, 2011

Snake Sightings

Things I like about Sydney No. 46: Snake Sightings

Whilst our minds are full of disturbing images of Queenslanders not only battling floods but battling the poisonous snakes which gaily swam into their houses (one poor man was stranded on his roof with only a rolled-up towel to beat off the marauding serpents) I thought I would regale you with my own tales of snakes here in Sydney.

Firstly, let's put things into perspective. In England there are only 3 species of snake and only one of these, the adder, is venomous. There are no records of anyone dying of an adder bite since 1975. Statistically, the English are much more likely to die of a wasp sting than a snake-bite.

In Australia there are over 140 species of land snake and around 32 species of sea snake. 100 species of snake are venomous and at least 12 species can kill you. Despite these frightening statistics, there have only been 42 deaths Australia-wide that have been attributed to snake-bite since 1980 (less than two a year). 24 of the last 40 recorded fatalities were caused by the Brown Snake, which makes it the deadliest of all.

Considering how much venomous writhing goes on in the undergrowth there are, then, relatively few deaths. And the reason for this is that snakes are extremely elusive. Shy, retiring types really; they only attack if severely provoked.

Which makes any sighting of a snake extremely special.

My first snake sighting has already been a subject for this blog. Back in March we discovered the corpse of a young Golden-Crowned Snake in our driveway. These snakes are very rare here in Greenwich and our sighting subsequently became part of the local council's newsletter so excited were the local herpetologists and environmentalists. Here it is again for those of you who missed it:

Golden-Crowned Snakes are nocturnal and a few weeks later, in early April, as Sniff and I were returning to the house from our evening walk around Greenwich, I saw a snake crossing our drive, lit by the glow from the light perched on our dilapidated gatepost. Sniff rashly hurried forwards but the snake disappeared into the undergrowth with a rapid shrug of its body. It was larger than the dead snake above - perhaps it was the grieving mother looking for her snakelet. Seeing this snake wriggle along the driveway at night sent exquisite shudders down my spine at the time and, to this day, I can conjure up its flight simply by closing my eyes.

(Golden-Crowned Snakes are, indeed, venomous...)

My third snake sighting also involved Sniff - he's good at sniffing those old serpents out. We were walking in Balls Head Reserve and right by the entrance found this:

Another dead snake I'm afraid, this time longer and larger and without the golden crown on its head. I haven't been able to identify it as yet so can any experts please help out? Not as fresh as the other corpse, a large group of ants were busying themselves with it, fussing about that part of its length which was split open and wounded. It looked to me as if it had been run over and then carefully placed on the verge.

Talking of Balls Head Reserve, the other day Sniff and I, instead of taking our normal route back down to the car, plunged off down a path towards the sea and stumbled across the most amazing thing - an enormous echoing tunnel leading underneath the old Quarantine depot:

Sniff wasn't too sure about its dank, dripping interior but I loved it...

Here's a gratuitous photograph of an insect spotted on the same walk - and it's even alive:

And here's a spider pretending to be a wasp:

Back to snakes and to the fourth, and most exciting, sighting.

Blackman Park is the furthest away of our possible local destinations for walking with Sniff. I have to summon up some extra enthusiasm to drive that little bit further to go there but it is always worth it when I do. The trail is usually empty of people and it rapidly passes through a series of different landscapes which increases the likelihood of spotting new creatures and birds. It is the only place I have seen Eastern Yellow Robins and Firetail Finches in Sydney and is always replete with lizards and cicadas (and there was once the Snake-Necked Turtle, already blogged).

Daniel and I took Judith, Daniel's mother, to Blackman Park whilst she was staying for Christmas. I had promised robins and finches and goodness knows what but it was rather hot and NOTHING could be seen except for the dried-out, shed husks of cicadas still clinging to grasses and twigs:

Here's a live one, shiny and new (and out of focus - I don't have any fancy macro lenses I'm afraid):

We were returning back along the track, rather disappointed with the distinct lack of wildlife (although Judith was rather taken with some wild orchids), when I casually said to Daniel "Is that a snake ahead on the path?"

As I spoke the words I didn't believe it was a snake, I was simply uttering a kind of hopeless longing. But, lo and behold!, as we both looked harder at the object before us it unfurled into a long shiny black thick roundish creature, over a metre and a half long, which then slid quickly off the wooden path into the bushes and obscurity.

Breathtaking. A Red-Bellied Black Snake, "capable of causing significant morbidity" or, in our case, significant astonishment. Again the sight was so extraordinary that I can vividly see it again now as I recall it. I'm sure it was reading many books during my childhood that contained colonial types battling anacondas in the jungle that make these rare sightings so resonant to me now...

Last weekend we went to the hugely disappointing Australian Museum (Sydney's museum of natural history - mundane, badly laid out, terribly curated, un-cared for specimens) to double check on this identification (and to buy a do-it-yourself science kit for Daniel's nephew). Their sad-looking stuffed Red-Bellied Black Snake, lying randomly next to a crocodile, was the spitting image of ours. Unfortunately I forgot to take a photo of it or of the plastic bendy one you could buy in the Museum shop (and I refuse to shell out another fifteen dollars to go there again) so you will either have to imagine its magnificence or google an image.

My fifth and final snake sighting occurred this week. I was walking along the creek at the bottom of our garden when I spotted an unusual-looking lizard. Unusual, in that it didn't seem to have any legs. As there are a lot of just-born baby lizards and skinks scuttling about at this time of year you catch a lot of small things flitting around out of the corner of your eye. But something told me that this was no ordinary lizard.

I picked up a stick and poked around in the leaf litter to try and disturb it and, sure enough, out scuttled a creature which definitely had no legs. I'd seen a similar something the day before, balanced on top of a frond of fern, but I couldn't get close enough to be sure. Now I was. It was a baby snake.

In retrospect, I probably shouldn't have got so close. It might have been a baby but perhaps even babies are looked so cute though... I let it scuttle off and disappear. Straightening up, I suddenly began to wonder if mother was anywhere near...

Another gratuitous photograph, this time of flowering gum, especially for those of you who are currently in the throes of a supernaturally cold winter...

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